Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

January 7, 2018

Cold Start – Jan 8, 2018 Cambridge City Council meeting (and more)

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 11:57 pm

Cold Start – Jan 8, 2018 Cambridge City Council meeting

Cold StartThis first regular meeting of the 2018-2019 Cambridge City Council will be chaired by our newly minted Mayor Marc McGovern. As one might expect, it’s a short agenda as the new and returning councillors settle in. City Council committee appointments may not be settled for a few weeks, so the only business will be what takes place in the regular Council meetings for now. There is one active zoning petition and 15 items from Awaiting Report that were requested to carry over to the new Council.

Here are some agenda items this week that seem interesting:

On the Table #2. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Craig Kelley, regarding assessing and approving Neighborhood-Based Resiliency. [Tabled on the motion of Councillor Kelley on Dec 18, 2017]

I remember when the term "Sustainability" was first popularized. It took people years to decide what the word really meant with various interested people and groups trying to fashion it in a way that suited their ideals and/or agendas. I’m not really sure what was ultimately decided. Though I have some idea what the term "Resiliency" might mean, e.g. hardening of infrastructure, my sense is that we’re in a place similar to where we were with "Sustainability" 25 years ago. For example, does Alewife Resiliency translate into transit-oriented development with better connections for all transportation modes or does it mean "Don’t build anything there because there may be flooding at times." The current narrow political dichotomy will likely answer in two radically different ways. Soft definitions are always risky propositions.

Order #1. That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to reach out to representatives of supermarkets other than Star Market, such as Market Basket, to determine the possibility of their opening a location at 20 Sidney Street, and to report back to the City Council on this matter.   Councillor Simmons

There has been an active discussion about the store closure on the Cambridgeport listserv over the last few days. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote there:

The Memorial Drive Stop & Shop closed in May 1994 which left the Cambridgeport area very much in need of a local supermarket. I believe it was in 1997 when University Park (really Forest City) offered to host a Star Market in their hotel/garage building. This was definitely done in order to sweeten the deal in order to obtain the necessary curb cuts (and let’s not forget the discontinuation of Blanche Street). There had been a City analysis of access to supermarkets in the wake of the Stop & Shop closure that informed the University Park decision.

At the time a lot of us felt that the whole concept of a 2nd floor supermarket with paid parking (though a discount was offered) was not a sustainable plan, but there really was a serious need for food access at that time – especially for Area 4 (now The Port) and MIT people who would get there on foot. Some of that logic has changed in recent years as more people live without motor vehicles, but most people who do any significant grocery shopping will choose to drive to a place like Market Basket in Somerville not only for the prices but also because there’s (usually) available parking. It’s virtually impossible that Market Basket would want to operate in the University Park space. It’s completely contrary to their very successful business model in which they own most of the locations of their stores and pay no rent. There are other operators that have a very different business model that might be able to make it work at this location, but only if University Park is willing to negotiate a rent that can make it sustainable.

Though I don’t believe there is any legal obligation that University Park must continue to host a supermarket, I think there’s at least some moral obligation to do so. The original University Park plans called for a "marketplace" that was never built (as well as a movie theater), and some might argue that the inclusion of the Star Market was a sort of making good on that original concept. Perhaps more significantly, the offer to host the Star Market came at a point when the matter was before the Planning Board and the City Council (for the curb cuts), and it was part of the negotiation even if there was no formal commitment to maintain the supermarket in perpetuity. – RW

Back in 1998 I wrote this: "We also learned at this meeting that an agreement has been worked out with the new Star Market at University Park that would make parking for the supermarket free for the first 1½ hours. This was one of the stickier issues a few years ago when the City voted to grant various curb cuts and to discontinue Blanche Street in order to make way for the hotel and supermarket." – Sept 14, 1998 in CCJ Issue #12

Here’s what I wrote on June 16, 2000: "There have also been persistent rumors about just how permanent the Star Market is at that location. For now, at least, it appears to be staying put." Well, it lasted longer than I thought and is now scheduled to close on Feb 3, 2018. Hopefully another supermarket operator can be found and that Forest City/University Park will be willing to offer a long-term lease with terms that can can allow a supermarket to economically operate there. Not everyone wants to shop by bike at Whole Paycheck.

Order #3. That the City Manager is requested to provide an update to the City Council on progress made in regards to the Stated Goals of the City Council, as outlined during the 2016-2017 City Council term.   Councillor Simmons

Goals are important, but the primary goal should be to not spend an endless time talking about them. – Robert Winters

The Upshot: There was a very healthy discussion regarding the future of the supermarket site in University Park. Look for some community meetings to take place in the coming weeks and months.

Mayor McGovern has appointed Councillors Carlone and Kelley as Co-Chairs of the Ordinance Committee.

Mayor McGovern also appointed a Special Ad-Hoc Rules Committee to review the City Council rules and the recommend any changes, including possible restructuring of the City Council subcommittees. This Ad-Hoc Committee will consist of Vice Mayor Devereux (Chair) and Councillors Mallon and Kelley; as well as Donna Lopez, City Clerk; Nancy Glowa, City Solicitor; Maryellen Carvello, Office manager to the City Manager, and Wil Durbin, Chief of Staff to the Mayor. This committee is requested to come back with recommendations in time for the next City Council meeting on January 22.

Jan 1, 2018 – The 2018-2019 Cambridge City Council was inaugurated this morning in the Sullivan Chamber of City Hall. After each elected councillor took the oath of office, the new City Council took care of its first order of business – the election of the Mayor. Though the eventual outcome was already known to many in the room for the last few weeks, there is always at least some drama due to the possibility that an alternate deal could be struck in the interim. However the vote went more or less as predicted with Marc McGovern being elected as Mayor for the 2018-2019 term. The initial vote was 7-2 for McGovern with Councillors Simmons and Toomey casting their votes for Tim Toomey, but Councillor Simmons changed her vote to McGovern to make the final vote 8-1.

After a speech by the newly elected Mayor McGovern that stressed themes of unity the Council then elected Jan Devereux to serve as Vice Chair of the City Council for the 2018-2019 term. That vote was initially 5 votes for Jan Devereux and 4 for Denise Simmons, but Alanna Mallon and then Craig Kelley changed their votes to Devereux to make the final vote 7-2 with Councillors Simmons and Toomey voting for Simmons.

After these proceedings there were several statements by councillors thanking Sandra Albano for her 47 years of service to the City and especially her role managing the City Council office since 1982. Sandy’s last day on the job is tomorrow – Jan 2, 2018 – and it’s hard to imagine City Hall without her.

Perhaps the high point of the entire Inaugural Meeting was Cambridge Police Deputy Superintendent Pauline Carter Wells singing John Lennon’s song "Imagine" – just as she did two years ago and just as inspiring.

Later in the day, starting at 6:00pm, the newly elected 2018-2019 Cambridge School Committee took their oaths of office and elected Kathleen Kelly as the Vice Chair (who will be responsible for making all subcommittee appointments). That vote was initially split with Manikka Bowman and Laurance Kimbrough voting for Manikka Bowman; Emily Dexter and voting for Patty Nolan; and Fred Fantini, Kathleen Kelly, Patty Nolan, and Marc McGovern voting for Kathleen Kelly. Emily Dexter and Laurance Kimbrough then changed their votes to Kathleen Kelly leading to the final 6-1 vote to elect Kathleen Kelly.

Mayor McGovern has tapped Wil Durbin to serve as Chief of Staff of the Mayor’s Office. He also tapped Luis Vasquez to be in charge of constituent services and outreach. Both are inspired choices.

The Plan E Charter only designates the Mayor as Chair of the City Council and the School Committee. All other roles and initiatives of the Mayor and the Mayor’s Office are at the discretion of the Mayor, and every Mayor defines their role differently. Mayor Simmons was a wonderful Mayor for the last two years and our newly elected Mayor McGovern promises to be just as inspiring in how he defines his role for the next two years.

One last note: A new portrait of former Mayor Barbara Ackermann now graces the back wall of the Sullivan Chamber. This was an extra special treat. – RW

Mayor McGovern oath
Marc McGovern is sworn in as Mayor
Mayor McGovern
Mayor McGovern’s inaugural address
Pauline Carter Wells sings "Imagine"
Pauline Carter Wells sings "Imagine"
Barbara Ackermann portrait in Sullivan Chamber
Barbara Ackermann portrait in Sullivan Chamber

The Mayors of Cambridge


  1. Did Star give a reason for the closure of University Park?
    There are Star Markets (last I knew) on Beacon Street
    and on McGrath/O’Brien, both right on the Cambridge
    border. The McGrath store would likely be of use to
    those affected by the University Park closure, though
    I don’t envy the walk there from Cambridgeport on a
    Cambridge Winter day.


    Comment by FRED BAKER — January 8, 2018 @ 1:48 am

  2. According to one person, someone who works at Star gave two reasons: 1) rent too high for the revenues that were seeing; 2) inability to put up a sign, resulting in “no one knows that we are here.”

    Perhaps when Mass & Main completes its residential building there will be more customers nearby who might have chosen the store or its successor (if there is one). I also think the Star business model is not ideal – their prices often are comparable to convenience store prices rather than supermarket prices, so people just use the nearest convenience store.

    Regarding the lack of signage, I agree. There should have at least been some kind of direction signage on Mass. Ave. indicating the presence of the store.

    Comment by Robert Winters — January 8, 2018 @ 8:47 am

  3. They did need signage, absolutely correct.

    Agreed on the subject of Star’s prices. In the 1970s
    when my family shopped there it was all right; our
    go-to store. During my more recent Cambridge
    residency, though, I’d only regularly buy items
    that were on sale or discounted with that silly
    card you’d pretty much have to get to receive
    most of the sale prices anyway. Beacon Street
    was our store of choice years ago.

    Robert, do you attribute these problems directly to
    the Council’s failure to allow a Super Stop-n-Shop
    on Memorial Drive in ’95? The story of a certain
    Councillor’s vote against it suddenly comes to mind…

    I’d also note the closing of Foodmaster on Beacon
    much more recently since I knew people who lived
    several miles away who would routinely make the special
    effort to shop there. Their prices were far more
    reasonable than Star’s. And I outright refuse to
    buy anything at the store that replaced it, at ANY
    of their locations. Whole Paycheck indeed.


    Comment by FRED BAKER — January 8, 2018 @ 1:13 pm

  4. The closing of the Memorial Drive Stop & Shop was definitely a turning point locally, but it was part of a trend that was happening during those years. Cambridge was getting wealthier and more people were willing to pay the high prices for what they perceived to be “better” food at Whole Paycheck. The wealthier people were not especially sympathetic to the basic needs of less affluent people, and the snobbery was both infuriating and entertaining. I remember one person who opposed the Cambridge Stop & Shop expansion saying she would give rides to people who needed to go the the Stop & Shop in Allston-Brighton (as if she would ever actually do it). Arguments about increased traffic seem almost comical looking back – MicroCenter and Trader Joe generate more traffic than the Stop & Shop and the other stores on that site ever did. On the bright side, the closure introduced me to Costco and Market Basket.

    We also used Johnnie’s Foodmaster for quick runs, but that too has gone over to the Dark Side.

    Comment by Robert Winters — January 8, 2018 @ 1:29 pm

  5. Someday we ought to make a list of extinct commercial
    venues that your regular guy or gal would frequent,
    prior to the boutique-ing of Cambridge.
    In particular I mourned the passing of Foodmaster,
    the Mass House of Pizza, Aram’s, the Inman Square
    Smoke Shop, Kendall Drug, Grower’s Market, and
    the Inman Square Supermarket. And if you want to
    go back far enough, the original Legal Seafoods in
    Inman Square was a bargain in the 70s.
    And Purity/Poverty Supreme in Central square,
    though they never really kept the place up.
    And Woolworth’s and so on …

    If the S&S and Royal Pastry close up … don’t
    get me started …


    Comment by FRED BAKER — January 8, 2018 @ 2:29 pm

  6. All,

    I want to thank Robert Winters again for maintaining this helpful and interesting web site.

    The list of retail and restaurant establishments lost in Cambridge is a long one—only one of my favorite used book stores exists any more, for example. In the 60’s, when I first lived in Cambridge, there were movie theaters in many of the major squares. But folks had better get used to more and more of their favorite retail haunts disappearing because the economic fundamentals for retail in Cambridge are terrible outside of a few small areas. That may have something to do with the fact that there is something like 35,000 square feet of vacant ground floor retail space between me—Fairfield Street—and Porter Square. And much of that has been vacant for over a year. What is the problem?

    A store or restaurant has a high cost of goods sold (product cost) and therefore cannot pay a high rent as a percentage of sales. Typically, a store or restaurant wants to pay between 5% and 10% of sales in rent but that could go a bit higher if margins were rich or volumes very high—neither of those things is particularly true in Cambridge except for a few places. A person developing real estate in Cambridge is often constrained in how much they can build on any given site so developers attempt to maximize the highest paying uses. Let’s create a hypothetical.

    A property owner builds out ground floor retail space in a mixed-use building at a cost of $500 per square foot plus $100 of land costs applied. The City taxes him on this $600 of FMV at 1.5% per year or $9.00 per square foot and he has another $6 per square foot of ownership costs—insurance on building, parking lot maintenance, HVAC, repairs, etc. The developer wants to achieve a 10% return on capital in this market but he will take 5% going in. That means that he needs $45 per square foot in rent going in to meet his 5% threshold. $45 in gross rent per square foot requires gross revenues in excess of $500 per square foot to allow the store renter to make a nickel at their business. That means that a small boutique with 500 square feet has to gross revenues of $250,000 per year or a bit over $20,000 a month in the best case and many store business plans require even lower rent ratios which in turn would require higher gross revenue levels. That’s a generic store and development pro forma—many in Cambridge would be wildly different from that set of numbers.

    That’s the development model but the ownership model for any real estate is the same. Store front on a per square foot basis is simply an ineffective economic use when compared to residential. In addition, all owners know that retail has problems so they would prefer not to deal with a one-off tenant but would rather have a Dunkin Donuts or similar.

    My point in talking about economics is simple. The developer actually doesn’t want to build out $600 per square foot retail space. He would prefer to build out residential units that are now selling new for $1,000 per square foot. Those sell like hot cakes and the stores take years to lease up. And, the store owner doesn’t really want to pay $45 per square foot in rent because it will be hard for him or her to earn more than a small paycheck with most retail business models. How did we wind up here?

    One answer—the largest answer— is exogenous. The internet is steadily destroying almost all brick and mortar retail businesses by reducing gross sales and by reducing margins. The second answer is endogenous. First, by practicing NIMBY many area residents have helped to drive up development costs signfificantly. Higher development costs mean higher rents. Second, by practicing NIMBY, many area residents have made it very hard—except near Kendall Square and near Alewife—to develop any sufficient quantities of new real estate such that anything that can be developed commands pricing right at the highest end of market and developers, due to high costs, only want to deliver types of real estate with slam dunk returns.

    So, using the lines of thinking developed above:

    1. We should expect to see continuing declines in our favorite, cheap old retail haunts because the deck is stacked against them. But a big part of that is natural because more and more people simply don’t need stores the same way that their parents did.

    2. If, as a City, we want to limit development in the way that we have, we should expect to see economically inferior uses like retail declining further.

    3. Because we have helped to provide ourselves with too little new housing, we should expect to see some retail establishments like gas/repair stations, book stores, super markets and other least-efficient retail uses dry up to be replaced by higher cost housing.

    Not all of it will disappear of course because there are some examples of forward thinking combined with a low cost basis that willl allow some retail models to work. Pemberton Market is a good example of that—a very well run family business with good margins coming from understanding their clientele and a reasonable cost basis coming from owning their own real estate bought in easier times. But the overall trend is not good and we are being less than honest if we do not recognize the part that we are playing in this. Finally, I think it would be futile to simply protect existing retail or mandate new. The market itself is telling us something about retail which is true.


    Peter Dane
    Fairfield Street

    Comment by Peter Dane — January 8, 2018 @ 8:55 pm

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